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Certain persons whose names I don't care to acknowledge have alleged that Dostoevsky has a "clunky" prose style. Well, now. Check out the brilliant Part One of Notes From Underground:

I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well--let it get worse!

I have been going on like that for a long time–twenty years. Now I am forty. I used to be in the government service, but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure in being so. I did not take bribes, you see, so I was bound to find a recompense in that, at least. (A poor jest, but I will not scratch it out. I wrote it thinking it would sound very witty; but now that I have seen myself that I only wanted to show off in a despicable way--I will not scratch it out on purpose!) When petitioners used to come for information to the table at which I sat, I used to grind my teeth at them, and felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody unhappy. I almost did succeed. For the most part they were all timid people--of course, they were petitioners. But of the uppish ones there was one officer in particular I could not endure. He simply would not be humble, and clanked his sword in a disgusting way. I carried on a feud with him for eighteen months over that sword. At last I got the better of him. He left off clanking it. That happened in my youth, though. But do you know, gentlemen, what was the chief point about my spite? Why, the whole point, the real sting of it lay in the fact that continually, even in the moment of the acutest spleen, I was inwardly conscious with shame that I was not only not a spiteful but not even an embittered man, that I was simply scaring sparrows at random and amusing myself by it. I might foam at the mouth, but bring me a doll to play with, give me a cup of tea with sugar in it, and maybe I should be appeased. I might even be genuinely touched, though probably I should grind my teeth at myself afterwards and lie awake at night with shame for months after. That was my way.

I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself with the petitioners and with the officer, and in reality I never could become spiteful. I was conscious every moment in myself of many, very many elements absolutely opposite to that. I felt them positively swarming in me, these opposite elements. I knew that they had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outlet from me, but I would not let them, would not let them, purposely would not let them come out. They tormented me till I was ashamed: they drove me to convulsions and--sickened me, at last, how they sickened me! Now, are not you fancying, gentlemen, that I am expressing remorse for something now, that I am asking your forgiveness for something? I am sure you are fancying that ... However, I assure you I do not care if you are....

It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature. That is my conviction of forty years. I am forty years old now, and you know forty years is a whole lifetime; you know it is extreme old age. To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly I will tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows. I tell all old men that to their face, all these venerable old men, all these silver-haired and reverend seniors! I tell the whole world that to its face! I have a right to say so, for I shall go on living to sixty myself. To seventy! To eighty!... Stay, let me take breath ...

You imagine no doubt, gentlemen, that I want to amuse you. You are mistaken in that, too. I am by no means such a mirthful person as you imagine, or as you may imagine; however, irritated by all this babble (and I feel that you are irritated) you think fit to ask me who I am--then my answer is, I am a collegiate assessor. I was in the service that I might have something to eat (and solely for that reason), and when last year a distant relation left me six thousand roubles in his will I immediately retired from the service and settled down in my corner. I used to live in this corner before, but now I have settled down in it. My room is a wretched, horrid one in the outskirts of the town. My servant is an old country-woman, ill-natured from stupidity, and, moreover, there is always a nasty smell about her. I am told that the Petersburg climate is bad for me, and that with my small means it is very expensive to live in Petersburg. I know all that better than all these sage and experienced counsellors and monitors.... But I am remaining in Petersburg; I am not going away from Petersburg! I am not going away because ... ech! Why, it is absolutely no matter whether I am going away or not going away.

But what can a decent man speak of with most pleasure?

Answer: Of himself.

Well, so I will talk about myself.

Except for the use of the phrase "pay out" which I take to be some sort of translation-induced anachronism, that's pure, pure, pure literary gold. My room, too, is a wretched, horrid one in the outskirts of the town, but I don't even have a nasty-smelling maid. Moving very soon, however.

July 7, 2004 | Permalink


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Yeah, but the book is terrible beyond that. Sleep-inducing. I was expecting it to be more like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but it wasn't.

Posted by: praktike | Jul 7, 2004 11:00:14 AM

Of course Notes is brilliant, but the almost stream-of-conciousness style (or even dead-on parody, another Dostoevsky specialty) doesn't really demonstrate that he had an exemplary prose style in the largely aesthetic sense most people mean when they talk about prose.

For a Russian opinion (and a good time) see Nabokov's personal crusade to inform us foolish Westerners of the big Dostoevsky fraud.

praktike: Well, I think Solzhenitsyn is soporific and second-rate, so there.

Posted by: moriveth | Jul 7, 2004 11:07:42 AM

Anyone who says that Dostoyevsky's prose is "clunky" should immediately be handed Ivan's "Rebellion" speech from Brothers Karamazov.

Posted by: Alex Knapp | Jul 7, 2004 11:34:56 AM

Wait--Dostoevsky wrote in English?

Posted by: Hogan | Jul 7, 2004 11:36:43 AM

Well, moriveth, you're wrong.

So there.

Posted by: praktike | Jul 7, 2004 11:48:29 AM

Russians think Dostoevsky has a lousy prose style. My impression, based on reading him in English, is that he benefits from translation.

Posted by: Theophylact | Jul 7, 2004 11:50:12 AM

I should add that prose style isn't everything. I love Philip K. Dick, I think he's a great writer, but his prose in clunky at best. And my wife says the same of Doris Lessing.

Posted by: Theophylact | Jul 7, 2004 11:52:56 AM


Went googling for Nietzsche remarks on "Underground", and stumbled on this site Lev Shestov, Russian Philosopher, 1866-1938. Wow, the stuff on the web. An entire book (among other books) titled: "Dostoevsky & Nietzsche:Philosophy of Tragedy" which has an extensive discussion of "Underground", tho appears to be mostly about Nietzsche's rejection of positivism.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 7, 2004 12:05:36 PM

Wow, finally got that posted. Kept getting "questionable content errors", something it didn't like in the html. Change the underscores to periods.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 7, 2004 12:07:35 PM

Oh, that brought back pleasant memories. I prefer the translation where the third sentence reads as "I believe there is something wrong with my liver." It just sounds better.

I don't personally find his prose style clunky, I've just given up arguing the point with those who do (too many years in Slavic departments surrounded by Tolstoy lovers). I was merely pointing out to the poster that the perceived clunkiness is not attributable to the translation. If you think it's clunky in english, you'd probably find it even clunkier in russian. I apologize for stating it so authoritatively, I was lazily avoiding the argument.

Posted by: sophia | Jul 7, 2004 12:08:56 PM

>Solzhenitsyn is soporific and second-rate

Yeah, maybe in that Homer, Shakespeare, Dante and Cervantes are first-rate, but geez.

One Day is what, a couple of hundred pages? And nothing happens in it. But somehow, Solzhenitsyn manages to sum up the whole of the human condition in the modern world. It's an epochal achievment.

Posted by: Finny | Jul 7, 2004 12:29:07 PM

Dostoevsky's self-defense:

"My jests, gentlemen, are of course in bad taste, jerky, involved, lacking self-confidence. But of course that is because I do not respect myself. Can a man of perception respect himself at all?"

(End of Part Four)

Posted by: thurgo | Jul 7, 2004 12:35:59 PM

I dunno, I kinda like Turgenyev. Chekhov, even.

Posted by: Wrye | Jul 7, 2004 12:37:05 PM

"Clunky" is an awfully vague term; whether it applies to a given style of writing pretty much depends on what you think "clunky" means in the literary context. As far as I'm concerned, "clunky" describes the style of the excerpt rather well, but it also seems to me that what I identify as its "clunkiness" is quite deliberate, beautifully invoking the mood and personality of the narrator.

"Clunky" and "pure literary gold" need not be mutually exclusive.

Posted by: Judy | Jul 7, 2004 12:45:56 PM

It's been too long since I read Notes from Underground to remember whether the prose itself is clunky. Matt's excerpt is fine, at least in translation.

But if I don't remember how Dostoevsky wrote it, what he *said* when he wrote it still affects me. The u-man's reductio ad absurdum defiance of rationality (for instance enduring the agony of a dying tooth for a month because it would be rational to have it pulled) provides a delightful stepping stone out of existentialism's narrow ditches.

(In the context of other readings that quarter, which included Marx, Hegel, Freud, Arendt, and Foucault, Notes from Underground seemed a perfect parody of those who doggedly apply rigorous logic to negligently chosen first principles.)

On the other hand whatever I read that year of either James -- both fine stylists -- seems to have left no impression at all.

David Innes

Posted by: David Innes | Jul 7, 2004 12:51:16 PM

It's worth noting that Dostoevsky usually didn't have the financial luxury of writing carefully; most of his novels were published serially in some haste. But even keeping that in mind, they *are* extremely messy--more Dumas than Dickens (not to portray the latter as the pinnacle of prose or craftsmanship). I love much of Big D, but it's easy to understand why he fatally offends more fastidious tastes (even in translation).

OT--quoting from Gore Vidal to further irritate Finny, because I am a spiteful man with a number of dreadful internal ailments:

"I daresay as an expression of one man's indomitable spirit in a tyrannous society we must honor if not the art the author. Fortunately the Nobel Prize is designed for just such a purpose. Certainly it is seldom bestowed for literary merit; if it were, Nabokov and not the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn would have received it when the Swedes decided it was Holy Russia's turn to be honored....To give the noble engineer his due he is good at describing how things work, and it is plain that nature destined him to write manuals of artillery or instructions on how to take apart a threshing machine."

Posted by: moriveth | Jul 7, 2004 1:10:18 PM

Even an engineer like myself found that the part where the protagonist keeps on following around his "friends" being a complete ass and asking them for money was the funniest thing I've ever read outside of a Dave Barry book.

Posted by: scarshapedstar | Jul 7, 2004 1:13:39 PM

Oh, so it is supposed to be funny? That helps. I feel like I am watching mud bubble. I suspect Dosty's "Notes" (along maybe with Rilke's "Notebooks") have been a terrible corrupting influence on undergraduate youth, for even in my casual acquaintance, I have encountered a half dozen kids handing me interminable, inpenetrable, stream-of-conciousness pieces of angst-art. I can only imagine what a college literature professor must have to suffer.

Best I read was from Beetlejuice:

"I am alone. I am utterly alone. I am utterly and terribly alone."

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 7, 2004 1:27:58 PM

Some people find anything not written for the TV generation "clunky."

He's not an artsy stylist; he's not clear as a bell like Tolstoy. He's not trying to be.

90% of "so-and-so's unreadable" complaints really mean "I'm too lazy to read anything not aimed at people with low attention spans."

(Gripes of an ex-English instructor!)

Posted by: Andy | Jul 7, 2004 3:49:15 PM

if you like this you should read gogol. this is just a poor imitation of gogol really.

Posted by: Olaf glad and big | Jul 7, 2004 4:42:26 PM

Reading The Brothers K has always reminded me of being seized by the lapels by a roaring drunk. But maybe its the translation.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Jul 7, 2004 6:50:59 PM

Definitely read Gogol.

I knew the liver was in "Ivan Illych". I didn't remeber it in "Notes".

Nabakov's judgements are always worth thinking about, but in no way authoritative. The guy had very definite ideas which were sometimes unique to him.

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 7, 2004 8:35:53 PM

Yes, yes. It is true that modern readers prefer books written like movies, and there is nothing wrong with that. But every once in a while, when the humidity thickens the air like the ghost of cotton, a true Southerner revels in dense prose that takes a hundred pages to get to the point, knowing that when something does happen, the characters will be so fully realized they seem almost like family rather than words on pages.

Posted by: Kiril | Jul 7, 2004 10:05:50 PM

I had been feeling unloved and ignored lately, and now this.
When Fyodor is on his game, as he is in Matt's excerpt, he can certainly write pages at a time that are a pleasure -- rather than a moral obligation -- to read. But perhaps it is no coincidence that this direct, lively, and unpretentious (except when intentionally and ironically pretentious) prose is put into the mouth of a character like the Underground Man, whose more hifalutin' or overheated stuff is supposed to be ridiculous.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Jul 7, 2004 10:10:39 PM

I came across this earlier in the day, Lev Shestov quoting from "Human, All-Too-Human."

"It was then," says Nietzsche, "that I came upon the aphorism: ‘a sick man has as yet no right to pessimism,’ and it was then that I began a patient, persistent campaign against the unscientific basic tendency of all romantic pessimism, which tries to magnify and interpret individual personal experiences into general judgments, even universal condemnations - "

I have never seemed able to get into these interior monologues, Proust, Beckett, Robe-Grillet. Shestov calls Dosty just another disillusioned romantic, with sentimentality instead of compassion, when he sees value in the world at all.

Probably shouldn't have read "The Idiot" at 13, one of the nastiest works in literature.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 7, 2004 11:22:35 PM

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